As if keeping track of existing formats weren’t bad enough — do I shoot film or digital? 16 or 35? RED or Alexa or F35 or something else? — it looks like filmmakers’ options have multiplied again. At CinemaCon (the former ShoWest) last week, James Cameron made the latest pitch to exhibitors for shooting and exhibiting movies at faster frame rates than the 24 fps standard. The other shoe dropped yesterday, when word came out of New Zealand that cinematographer Andrew Lesnie is in fact shooting The Hobbit in stereo 3D on RED EPIC cameras at 47.96 fps.
So is every other production in the world now technically obsolete, or what? We’ll see.
Film-technology mavens have been grumbling about the limitations of acquisition at 24 fps at least since legendary VFX expert Douglas Trumbull developed the 60 fps Showscan system back in 1984. Film critic Roger Ebert became a vocal champion of Showscan but the technology, which incorporated 65mm film, never caught on beyond theme parks, museums, and other special venues.
In some ways high-frame-rate acquisition is an odd thing for a film critic to champion, given that it fundamentally changes the appearance of a moving image. Viewers often associate the smoother, crisper footage shot at high frame rates with soap operas and other made-for-TV content due to many years of viewing material shot at NTSC’s native 29.97 frame rate. Stu Maschwitz posted a rundown of the potential downside of 48 fps exhibition at Prolost, including his fear that, at least where filmmaking technology is concerned, Jim Cameron might be losing his way.
It’s highly unlikely that Peter Jackson and crew are flying blind. The decision wouldn’t be made lightly — after all, it represents a doubling of the footage (already doubled by the stereo 3D format!) that’s created and has to be worked with in post. Trust that they have done extensive tests of the 48fps footage and decided that it offers a compelling way forward. High-end televisions are already built with 240Hz displays — if the technology proves to be a success with theatrical audiences, will we all be buying new Blu-ray players in five years? Will streaming be the way to go, at ever-higher bandwidths? Or will the high-frame-rate version of the film be something that’s saved for the premium theatrical experience?
However it shakes out, let me just say wow — these are exciting, epochal times for cinematography.
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